An Homage and Farewell to Wagner: Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder

CD Review of Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder (Markus Stenz, Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman)


Markus Stenz, Brandon Jovanovich, Barbara Haveman. Schoenberg: Gurre-Lieder. Recorded with the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, June 2014. Hyperion CDA 68081, 2015. CD.

The Gurre-Lieder are simultaneously a tribute to Richard Wagner and a farewell to a tradition that Arnold Schoenberg wanted to leave behind. In no other work by Schoenberg is the examination of Wagner’s legacy so evident. Markus Stenz, who manages to make the Gürzenich Orchestra play with the virtuosity of a chamber-ensemble, ultimately highlights the forward-looking aspects of Schoenberg’s music, especially the profound attention to tone-color and the rhythmic sophistication.

A cantata for five soloists, a narrator, three male choruses, a mixed chorus, and an orchestra of 150 musicians, Gurre-Lieder is a work that brings the Wagnerian orchestra to the concert stage. Also Wagnerian is the work’s enormous temporal scale: it lasts one hour and forty-five minutes. Schoenberg’s work is based on a text by the nineteenth-century Danish poet Jens Peter Jacobsen, who draws on legends surrounding Waldemar IV, king of Denmark from 1340 to 1375. Waldemar falls in love with a young woman, Tove, who is in turn killed by Queen Helvig. According to the legend, Waldemar – who curses God for Tove’s death – is condemned to take part in a wild hunt accompanied by the undead until the end of time. Drawing on medieval myth and legend, Jacobsen’s text shares many features in common with Wagner’s operas – forbidden love, a fatal curse, and a cosmic war between humans and gods. Schoenberg’s work is divided into three parts: the first focuses on the relationship between Waldemar and Tove; the second on Waldemar cursing God; the third on Waldemar’s wild hunt.


Asgårdsreien (The Wild Hunt) by Peter Nicolai Arbo (1872)

Schoenberg began working on the Gurre-Lieder in 1900 but broke off composition in 1903, fearing that he would not have the financial resources to perform such an enormous work. According to the musicologist Brian G. Campbell, the work was more or less finished in 1903 except for the orchestration of Part III (Cambell 2000). A performance of Part I in 1910 led Schoenberg to finish the orchestration between 1910 and 1911. In keeping with the compositional break, Part III features a different orchestration style: Schoenberg now sharply juxtaposes contrasting timbres, as opposed to the smooth transitions found in his earlier style.

This was my first time hearing the Gürzenich-Orchester Köln. I was surprised to read that the orchestra has been in existence since 1827, and that it premiered such works as Brahms’s Double Concerto, Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel and Don Quixote, and Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Though no longer in Cologne, Markus Stenz served as Chief Conductor between 2003 to 2014 and is currently Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. Brandon Jovanovich, who sings the part of Waldemar, is a native of Montana and has appeared at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera, the Wiener Staatsoper, and the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Equally accomplished, Barbara Haveman (Tove) is a Dutch soprano who specializes in German Lieder in addition to opera. Other singers on this album include Thomas Bauer, Gerhard Siegel, and Claudia Mahnke; and, the narrator is Johannes Martin Kränzle.

My favorite part of this CD is the Prelude and Waldemar’s first song (“Nun dämpft die Dämm’rung). Schoenberg’s model for the Prelude is the beginning of Das Rheingold, except that Schoenberg is depicting a sunset – not the morning, as Wagner does (Cherlin 2007). Like the Prelude of Rheingold, Schoenberg’s opening layers multiple rhythmic figures over a static harmony. As a result, the music suggests flickering light, the imagery of which is further enhanced by the scoring (piccolo, flute, strings, harp) and the syncopation. Stenz’s sensitivity to color is also apparent in Waldemar’s first song, effectively balancing the heroic tenor voice of Brandon Jovanovich. Jovanovich and Barbara Haveman, whose voices are ideally paired on this recording, are both traditional Wagner singers – they have large voices that can be heard over the orchestra and carry well in the opera house – which highlights the Wagnerian nature of Schoenberg’s early vocal writing. Jovanovich and Haveman are the perfect choice for Gurre-Lieder, for it wasn’t until Pierrot lunaire (1912) that Schoenberg really began experimenting with a new vocal style.

In conclusion, Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder has both progressive and traditional aspects, and this recording brings out both sides. In addition to the vocal writing, Schoenberg adopts Wagner’s idea of “endless melody,” creating continuity and larger trajectories by deferring strong cadences and avoiding regular phrasing. Schoenberg also makes use of leitmotivs (recurring motives associated with a person, place, or thing) but not in the structural way that we find in Wagner’s later works. What really makes Gurre-Lieder forward-looking is its orchestration, especially in Part III. Here we find techniques that Schoenberg had developed in the Five Pieces for Orchestra, op. 16 (1909): frequent, abrupt changes of instrumentation, extended techniques, and the solo treatment of instruments in the context of a large orchestra. Ultimately, it is the forward-looking aspects of Gurre-Lieder that are highlighted in this CD through the supreme artistry of Markus Stenz and the Gürzenich Orchestra. I highly recommend this recording.

Further Reading

Campbell, Brian G. “Gurrelieder and the Fall of the Gods: Schoenberg’s Struggle with the Legacy of Wagner.” In Schoenberg and Words: The Modernist Years, edited by Charlotte M. Cross and Russell A. Berman, 31-64. New York: Garland Publishing, 2000. [Link to book]

Cherlin, Michael. “A Passing of Worlds: Gurrelieder as Schoenberg’s Reluctant Farewell to the Nineteenth Century.” In Schoenberg’s Musical Imagination, 20-43. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. [Link to book]

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